Comment of the Day: First We Crowd

COMMENT OF THE DAY: FIRST WE CROWD “. . . those folks thinking Houston would ever actually be capable of creating infrastructure to adequately manage increased density developments are living in a fool’s paradise. you live in a state where voters actively vote against such propositions by favoring no income taxes and keeping the pressure on no property tax increases to fund such transit initiatives. the density will have to come first, that’s a given.” [joel, commenting on Comment of the Day: Bring It On]

40 Comment

  • Could mass transit not be funded through bonds? Houstonians don’t seem particularly fazed by bond initiatives. We approve them all the time. I was somewhat surprised by the significant support for Houston ISD’s last bond initiative.

  • hopefully someday Houston will be as dense as Bangkok or Hong Kong, that would be cool

  • i think you’ll find bond support for transit-related issues much more scarcer though due to the utilization percentage. much of the public can associate with the pain our schools have been going through and are well familiar with Texas’ desperate need to fix school finance (and thanks for nothing on that note Perry), but mass transit/traffic issues aren’t as much of a priority for a majority of folks.

    i still remember when we passed the widely debated drainage improvement fee a few years back to be based on lot permeability. seemed as if voters were actually moved by it or were better informed it probably wouldn’t have passed, not to say i’m familiar with the true negatives/positives of it. just don’t recall it being smooth sailing.

  • @benny you forgot to mention that every building in the future would have first floor retail too

  • I think that is the Texas way of saying, “we don’t want you here, go away.” But in a friendlier, Southern manner.

  • If gridlock increases the chance for transit, then the Galleria area should have been addressed years ago. But despite horrendous traffic in that area, we’re only now talking seriously about improving transit there, and there’s no guarantee any of the plans will come to fruition.
    The bigger reason you see such opposition to transit is financial, and political. As Joel pointed out, there’s the utilization factor. But also, big landowners have a vested interest in building roads out into virgin farmland, so that the land can be sold for huge profits. These guys are also very active in Texas politics, so Austin listens to them.
    Finally, transit has an image problem. Lots of suburbanites think transit brings crime. It’s totally not true, but it’s what they believe – and so far nobody in the pro-transit crowd has been able to convince them otherwise.

  • Bonds get passed because their for schools. “It’s for the kids” can get anything passed in this country.

  • @Rex- “It’s for the kids” can’t seem to get past Pretty Hair Perry or the esteemed state legislature. While I am a proud Texan, I find our government to be an absolute disgrace.

  • Ah, yes. We don’t pay enough taxes. Of course that’s the problem. Because government is so efficient, and so good at allocating resources that they must surely have exhausted all other options, and it’s time to take some more from the taxpayers. I mean, surely Metro hasn’t ever wasted any money? Right?

  • @ Paul, lmao. YES, we do need first floor retail on every new building, should be a requirement for building code. It works in Hong Kong plus they aren’t rude to bicycles, etc.

  • Yes, I’d rather keep my money than pay for trains. Money is better.

  • ZAW; Honestly, this is not the first time Houston has “seriously” addressed transit. I have been here for 30 years and have seen it “seriously” addressed at least 2 times by vote, both times the vote has ultimately been overcome by opposition even though approved. We have been in various states of gridlock for years and keep trying to build our way out of it with wider freeways and toll roads. Some of these “solutions” temporarily relieve pressure and transit problems are forgotten. I am waiting to see what the next proposal will be for the Katy Frwy when it reaches gridlock. A parallel toll road? 10 more lanes? Double deck? Same with West Loop, 290, etc. We are much like LA, and will be more so in response….multiple business centers that don’t require as much commuting and more sprawl to accommodate that model. Never mind the real cost of that to the environment and quality of life as long as we don’t have to spend any money on real solutions that would probably cost half as much if we really calculated the cost of cars (parking, flood control due to run-off, loss of property tax due to wider freeways, public health costs due to pollution).

  • “Lots of suburbanites think transit brings crime. It’s totally not true, but it’s what they believe” – tell that one to people who used to live in Inwood Forest, or for anyone along Antoine north of Oak Forest. Once the bus route went through up Antoine, crime skyrocketed and blight followed. Nothing like listening to more smart growth lemmings fawning over the false financials and fake ridership numbers for the dangertrains. The Texas economic environment is attracting all sorts of business from a myriad of blue states in economic turmoil because we are business friendly and have low taxes, and yet the leftist social engineering lemmings are yearning for higher taxes and think the drainage tax scam was a great idea. Progressive logic at is finest. Houston could have world class mass transit if a fraction of the money blown on light rail was spent investing in flexible clean diesel hybrid electric buses. Instead we have a decimated bus service and blown tons of money on a corrupt mass transit agency hell bent on a utopian whirled class inflexible light rail boondoggle.

  • Where is all this traffic you guys speak about? A recent survey of traffic all across the world ranked Houston area traffic 16th worst in the county. Not too bad for the fourth largest city.

    Unless you’re commuting from the suburbs to the city for work, the traffic around here doesn’t seem bad to me at all.

    Are the some traffic free urban utopias out there that I’m oblivious to? Every major city has traffic issues.

    METRO has been rolling in sales tax cash for decades. They built a choo choo that serves 30,000 riders a day, which probably means 15,000 actual people since most travel two directions.

    The cost/benefit of MetroRail is an absolute joke and building out the rest of the system isn’t going to help.

  • CK- that’s a ‘post hoc ergo prompter hoc’ fallacy. Crime may have increased after transit was brought to that area, but that does not necessarily mean it happened because of transit.
    There are a lot of other factors that can affect local crime rates. An aging multifamily and low-end single-family housing stock can cause problems. Abandoned properties can be a magnet for criminals. And that’s to say nothing of local political decisions, like budget cuts to the police, or even decisions to close libraries on weekends. Studies have shown that transit had litte or no effect on local crime. And it stands to reason. If you’re a burglar, are you really going to try to carry a stolen TV onto a bus? If you just attacked someone, are you going to sit around and wait for the train?
    It is true that crime, and the perception of crime, is a huge issue for most of Houston. But if we’re going to live in a safer City, we need to address the real causes of crime; not get caught up on things that don’t affect it – like transit.

  • CK, you really can’t be serious, can you? What kool aid have you been drinking? To say that the “blue states” aren’t business friendly is a crock of s***. Many are very business friendly. You don’t think that the industry that built this fine country in those “blue states” did so in an unfriendly environment do you? When energy goes bust in the future like manufacturing did, so will Texas. Its all in the writing on the walls. At that point, if we as a state and an anti tax state haven’t dealt with taxes to pay for “progressive” ideas like having enough water or being able to get around, we will see how long those who came here because we are “business friendly” will stick around. It happened in the 80’s when we were equally “business friendly”, and it can happen again. I hope you are here to see it.

  • Trolls everywhere

  • The whole blue state vs. red state thing is stupid and I have no idea how that has any relevance to a discussion on mass transit in the city of Houston. There is clearly a market for residential real estate inside the Loop. That is obvious to everybody and doesn’t need to be stated. I don’t think that’s just a fad, either, at least not any more than the suburbanization of Houston was just a fad back in the 60’s and 70’s. We addressed transportation problems back then in a way that was fitting for that migration to the suburbs: more and wider highways. That solution does address the problems associated with the current trend.

  • Texas is below the national average in per capita GDP so please end the “business friendly” nonsense. There really isn’t a correlation between business and red/blue states except in rhetoric.

  • Economic reality: Houstonnis growingnbecausenits a great place to live. Close in neighborhoods will get more dense because people want to live in them. Getting around in individually-driven cars won’t scale to meet transportation demands, and we will adapt to find other ways to get around – which is likely to be a mix of transit, bike paths, HOV restrictions (I’m thinking if cities where it’s not HOV Lanes but entire road, such as I66 in Virginia which you CANNOT drive on alone at certain hours, self driving cars on networked smart roads, etc.

    If you don’t like density you need to organize your life not to need to live in a big city. Economic pressure will make these decisions for you.

  • I totally agree with Bernard. Houston doesn’t have a (major) traffic issue and most traffic people face is self inflicted as a trade off decision of cheaper / larger housing.
    You’re free to live in an area where you don’t have to face the same amount of traffic. You just don’t get the same 5,000 SF house on a 10,000 SF lot. If someone makes the decision to live far away to get cheap housing, it’s not like the resulting traffic issue is a surprise. Rather it’s simply the ‘con’ to the large-house ‘pro’.
    For the price of a large house far away, I bought a small townhome in Montrose some years ago. I made the decision because I’d rather punch myself in the face then sit in traffic. That trade off isn’t for everyone. Many people are fine to sit in traffic for a while in exchange for a monster home. But that decision was theirs to make. So asking everyone to build a train to bring you into town or another 10 lanes of freeway seems — selfish?

  • Another 10 lanes of freeway seems selfish until one recognizes that approximately 21 of every new 22 households is formed outside of the 610 Loop, and that they all pay taxes. At some point, it just seems fair that infrastructure should be expanded commensurate with the geographic distribution of the housing market.

  • I would just add to what Cody said. You can avoid traffic AND get a big house and lawn here in Houston. You just need to set aside your prejudices about certain neighborhoods. We’ve been living in the Brays Oaks area, formerly known as Fondren Southwest, since 2007, and it’s wonderful. Houses prices are on-par with far-flung suburbs like Jersey Village and Spring; far less than Inside the Loop. Barring any major accidents we can get from our house to the Museum District in less than 25 minutes; the Medical Center in under 20. My commute to work only takes me one exit on the Southwest Freeway. I take a certain satisfaction and watching all the people from Sugar Land sit in traffic, knowing that they spent more and got less house than we did.
    (Crime issues here are overblown, by the way – the result of sensationalized local news reports. The public schools are lousy, but we have some great private schools.)

  • +1 for traffic being self-imposed. Furthermore, living outside the city doesn’t save nearly as much money as it would seem. For every $1 a working family saves by living outside the city, it spends about $.77 more to commute back in. Beyond 12-15 miles, the savings are completely negated.

    Commuting to Opportunity: The Working Poor and Commuting in the United States

  • Houston is less dense/gridlocked /congested/polluted/traffic-jammed than: NYC, Hong Kong,Bangkok, Mexico City,LA,London,et al. We’re getting there though. Houston’s motto:”more development,concrete & structures”.

  • @TheNiche: I don’t care of you pay taxes; yes, it could be called selfish to expect a 10-lane freeway that runs through someone else’s neighborhood (effectively destroying it) for your convenience. It could also be called “selfish” to buy a house in an area with inadequate transportation and expect someone to fix that for your eventually.

    Not selfish would be expecting, for example, a park and ride facility to be created in a fast growing outer area so you could more easily get to the central areas of the city on existing roads.

    As for household formation – you don’t think that’s driven by developers building out there, because they know somebody else’s neighborhood will get plowed down eventually for a new freeway?

  • The 10 lane freeway that runs through Sharpstown didn’t kill it. In fact, the neighborhood was planned around the freeway right of way. I would argue that the neighborhood benefits from the freeway.

  • John, where would you suggest all the new homes be built? Keep in mind that most folks with kids don’t really want to live inside the Loop due to expense or the perception (right or wrong) that the schools are bad. The developers tend to build what people want, and that’s generally easier when you can develop 500 acres at once, as opposed to trying to buy up whole neighborhoods in town.

  • @ John (another one): Its never been my observation that freeways adversely impact urban land values further than a couple of streets away from their edges. It’s remarkable. I would think that they would do more damage than that, but it does not seem to be the case.

    Also, I would suspect that a time series analysis would reveal that when transportation links greater numbers of the suburban workforce to the urban core, the urban core’s attractiveness to employers and retailers is enhanced, resulting in more commercial development. This leads to land values higher, in general, over the long term, without effecting very nearly any supply constraints in a regional context such as would lead to undesirable social inequities. (That is to say, poor people may be priced out of a neighborhood, but there are still numerous alternative options that are still reasonably accessible to the urban core.)

    By contrast, a no-build scenario bottles up traffic. The city cannot simply be re-platted, deed restrictions cannot simply be revoked, and so it cannot densify commensurate with increasing demand; this is called path dependence. Prices rise. People that bought-in early win. Renters and new entrants to the housing market pay much more of their income to the incumbent property owners — and then most of them still buy cars, roads are clogged for city-dwellers and suburbanites alike, and high land values coupled with poor quality of life and fewer realistic options for diverse cross-sections of prospective employees drive employers into suburban campuses.

    The no-build scenario is a transfer payment to people that are already relatively well-off, followed by expense and misery. That’s not in the public interest, IMHO.

  • Ross, my point is that what people want depends on someone coming in and spending vast amounts of public money trying to ameliorate the transportation problems of building a pile of new homes in a place without adequate infrastructure. I don’t buy that you can’t make a lot of money on infill development – lots of people are in a lot of other cities (& in Houston, as well). And Houston is, for a large city, relatively empty.

    And that’s my other point, that it doesn’t really matter if people like our half empty city the way it is – if we keep growing, better-located land will get more dense because of inexorable economic pressure for it. It’s going to happen, and my Heights neighbors squealing every time something other than a single family homes get built in the neighborhood should just deal with the idea that they live in the central part of a growing city, and density is what comes with that.

  • Niche is right. And with precast concrete sound barriers, the negative impact of freeways is limited to just houses that immediately abut the freeway. (That’s my observation anyway).
    But John is right, too. There is a natural limit to how far cities can srawl, and it’s based on transit. When people walked everywhere, cities only grew as far as people could walk. When streetcars came along, cities were limited by the extent of their streetcars. Commuter trains and ferries expanded them a little more. I’s really no different for modern cities with automobiles. There’s a limit to how far people will drive, and eventually urban sprawl runs into that limit. New York’s metro area, and Los Angeles, have already reached that limit. Soon, when Pearland and areas to the south have grown out as far as areas to the north and west have, Houston will reach the limit, too. And that’s when density will really take off.
    (Unless someone invents a safe flying commute-vehicle or something).

  • I don’t think that there is any natural limit to how far cities can sprawl. People like to travel; its good for the soul. The only limiting factors are technology and its affordability.

    For instance, if vacuum-sealed Maglev technology can enable people to travel 600 mph (it can) and people can reasonably afford it (they can’t yet under any existing scheme of public or private finance), then it is not inconceivable that people should commute between the downtowns of Houston and Dallas with such ease as they currently might commute from Katy and Houston. Its pretty awesome to think about because it would wholly redefine the economic geography of cities that are so connected. But just having two points connected would only tend to benefit urban cores…place a P&R location in some inexpensive and pretty spot like Madison County and watch it explode with demand, subdivisions, stores, highways, gas stations, and everything that makes suburbia suburban. Oh, but wait, let’s assume that networked and computer-driven cars become mass-marketable. Well shit, suddenly you can fit a lot more vehicles on the road and move them around equitably and efficiently; and people would be too busy reading the newspaper on their iPad to pay attention to picture-perfect squiggly roads, so maybe the suburbs of Madison County rely on an approximately hexagonal local grid of fairly narrow thoroughfares…or some other highly-efficient geometry, and this paradigm is the new suburb, the new American way.

    History has taught us these lessons. Before there was the freeway, there were paved roads at grade-level and buses. Before that, there were streetcars and mostly un-paved roads; a few paved with brick. Before that it was dirt and mud; a few paved with planks of wood. With each advance, the city redefined itself according to the geography of its suburbs.

    The only reason that one might expect that the process of successive transformations should reverse itself would be…declining population and income. Or from draconian policy, especially that protects the interests of incumbent wealth over the interests of society as a whole.

  • So Niche, I think you have a good point. Except that “travel is good for the soul” bit. It is, but commuting isn’t travel, and I defy you to find more than a dozen people who think commuting from the Woodlands to the Galleria is good for their souls. (I work with a couple, their descriptions are more along the lines of “the soul-crushing hell of my day.”)

    But this actually becomes a driver for density. If you have really fast trains and you pair that with dense destinations, commuting by the maglev from Columbus to Houston becomes practical – you have to be able to get somewhere when you hop off that train.

    And technology changes will figure into this, which is why “freeways vs transit” is a busted argument. Take a look at the self-driving car technology that’s developing really fast. When that hits usability, and you turn the roads into smart networks, you have a situation where they can handle a lot more capacity (because networked smart cars can use it far more efficiently than distracted primates). You also have the possibility of breaking the one-car-per-person paradigm, when you can order up a self-driving car to show up at work and take you home – cars no longer need to sit unused 95% of the time, and can be parked farther from destinations (“Car – leave the parking structure to be at my door at 5PM, please”) which also makes density more practical – you don’t have to account for all those cars and junk up the streets with parking.

  • Niche – that’s exactly what I was saying. Cities are limited in how far they can sprawl by the standard form of personal transit of the time. It has always been this way, and it will always be this way. Maybe someday personal maglev pods that go 600 mph will let us sprawl much further out, but right now cities are limited by the private automobile.
    This is a far more effective, and natural, limit to sprawl than any governmental regulation. It’s something to be aware of – and plan for – as we develop cities.

  • Yeah, don’t get me wrong. Travel is only good for the soul up to a point. A rush hour Woodlands-to-Galleria commute would be positively unbearable for me. Although…if I could arrange to commute during off-peak hours, maybe not.

  • John, have you asked your colleagues why they make that commute? Is life in the Woodlands that much better than what they could find in town? Given the prices of houses in The Woodlands, there’s not a real economic incentive.

  • “natural limits” for growth? Geographic boundaries and water supply.

    A city’s growth is constrained by it’s geography, whether it’s rivers, bays, mountains, etc. New York has rivers and the ocean to constrain it’s growth. Chicago has Lake Michigan. St. Louis has the Mississippi River. Los Angeles and San Francisco are restrained by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Houston has the “mighty” Buffalo Bayou and that’s not hindering development at all.

  • I knew LA sprawl was bad, but I didn’t think it was all the way over to the Rocky Mountains…

  • Why my coworkers live in The Woodlands – they were there before they worked where we are now, they like it, and someday they won’t work in the same place anymore, so why uproot the family? It’s not crazy, but it is challenging while you’re making that commute, I guess. Of course, this is one of the reasons I live in the central city – closer to more job locations over the course of a career.

  • Or in the case of Pearland, twenty-five years ago we got a great deal on a then-brand new house that is nearly paid off but not particularly saleable due to so much new development in the area. It’s been a safe area and our daughter had a generally good school experience. In 1990 the commute was easy, less so now. I can’t think of any possible way to reduce my commute that wouldn’t have a deeply negative impact on my finances and quality of life. Thank goodness for podcasts, music, and audiobooks.